A Tale of Two Dissidents In China: Wang and Wei

Wei's release may pave way for his better-known compatriot

The release of dissident Wei Jingsheng from a Chinese gulag last week now shifts the global human rights spotlight onto his still-imprisoned fellow activist Wang Dan, who could cast a far longer shadow across China than Mr. Wei's.

While Wei was well-known outside China, he was relatively unknown at home. And although his release helped improve Beijing's international image, it had little effect inside China, where the media and public ignored the story.

In contrast, Mr. Wang is almost a household name here. Millions of Chinese were glued to their television sets when Wang, as a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, debated Premier Li Peng on live TV. His notoriety means he could prove a more troublesome - or perhaps a more healing - influence in China.

Both dissidents were candidates for the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for their nonviolent campaigns for basic human rights in China, but many Chinese believe a wellspring of empathy within China for Wang means his release would create ripples of relief throughout Chinese society - something Wei's release could not achieve. Releasing Wang would also allow China's rulers the chance to show a humanitarian side to the Chinese people, an opportunity Wei's release failed to provide.

"Even within the Communist Party, Wang Dan's being set free would help bridge the divides that have set conservatives against reformists since the 1989 attack on Tiananmen Square," says a government official in Beijing."Many [of China's 50 million] party members did not support the students leading marches and occupying Tiananmen Square to call for political reform."

"Yet most officials were also shocked that tanks and troops were used to stop the demonstrations. Releasing Wang Dan would help heal those wounds, and exiling him to the US would limit any disruptive effect on Chinese society," he adds.

Chinese of every social stripe agree. "When Wei Jingsheng wrote articles and posters calling for the rapid introduction of democracy after Mao Zedong died [in 1976], even open-minded scholars thought he wanted too much too soon," says a former dissident of Wei's era. "But 10 years later, when Wang Dan asked for a more open press and a dialogue between the party and the people, many workers, housewives, and even liberal politicians all over China agreed with him," she adds.

Indeed, when Wang was freed from his first jail term in 1993, fruit sellers, bus conductors, and restaurant owners throughout the Chinese capital often refused to let him pay for anything, in private gestures of support for the leader of the 1989 uprising.

When Wei was briefly released five years ago, the only sign that he was unusual on the streets of the capital was the coterie of secret police who followed him.

After nearly a year of freedom, Wang was given a second term last year for "attempting to subvert the government" through writing political commentaries in the Hong Kong press and enrolling in a correspondence course with the University of California.

Like Wei, who was released on medical parole, Wang is said to be suffering from a number of ailments that have not been treated in prison. Concern in the Chinese leadership over Wei's deteriorating health is said to have played a key role in the decision to release him. Wang's mother, Wang Lingyuan, hopes that precedent will carry over to her son.

"Wang Dan is likely to agree to go abroad for medical treatment if that is the only alternative to his suffering for 11 years in prison," she says.

Although Wei's release may have been ignored by both the media and public in China, that doesn't mean it was without influence.

His release has opened a door that may be difficult to shut, says Andrew Nathan, a widely respected China scholar who acted as Wei's translator during his first American press conference.

"The significance of Wei's release is that the Chinese government is responsive to international pressure when it flagrantly abuses the rights of political prisoners," Mr. Nathan says.

Although it's too early to tell whether Wei's release is the first sign of a political thaw in China, he says, it may have provided the Chinese government with an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Tiananmen Square crackdown by releasing Wang as well.

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